The past 12 month have almost ripped the arts to shreds. Theatre doors are barred shut. Performers, venue staff and the numerous staff working behind the scenes of every major production are struggling. The cultural fabric of our lives have been torn in a way we couldn’t scarcely have imagined little more than a year ago. Too many performances, theatres and livelihoods have fallen by the wayside. As World Theatre Day comes around again, one thing is certain. Theatre, in some form, has endured.
Yet the sense of loss remains. Of the many sacrifices we have made this past year, live theatre may seem like one of the more inconsequential. But theatre is a tonic for the heart, mind, and soul. You are connected to complete strangers in a way that nowhere else can offer. Live performances provide a sensory and emotional phenomena quite unlike anything else. What follows are the testimonies of some of our contributors who are sharing their fondest memories of these feelings and experiences. Everything from the audience to the venue and the palpable anticipation make the theatre what it is.
Such emotive, compelling recollections are what form the basis of our writers’ words, an ode to what we long to see return in some form once live theatre can welcome audiences back into the warmth of the auditorium. After a torrid time of torture and anguish for too many people, the warm embrace of the stage can be coveted like never before.
As You Like It – Barbican Centre (2020)
Words by Elizabeth Sorrell.
I fell for the brutalist glare of the building’s exterior the moment I laid eyes on it, a layer cake of grey stone on darker grey stone. Inside, I felt the hearty welcome of the tangerine scintillations mixed with the feeling that I should be smelling sulphur off the stone pillars. The actual scent of the foyer is dominated by the intertwining of espressos and herbal teas in the cafe around the corner.
I sit a few rows from the stage to see As You Like It – my first Shakespeare play. My friend and I restlessly squirm as if chairs are a new-fangled concept, the rubbing of crooked knees on the seat in front proving to be a forgotten unpleasantness by the end of the show.
An elderly couple in front of us have not only seen many Shakespeare plays, but many productions of this play in their lifetime. I’m eavesdropping on their wisdom regarding their initial impressions of the set and the programme, but theatre has a way of erasing the need of a cordial invitation to a stranger’s conversation. The lights quickly dim, and a forlorn Orlando sits on a swing hovering over the grass.
Waitress – Adelphi Theatre (2020)
Words by Katie Kirkpatrick.
Having stood awkwardly at a bar with a bizarre absence of tables, you smugly make your way to your front row seat. ‘Restricted view’ is guidance best ignored. Surveying the theatre-goers around you, you spot a friend a few rows back – it really is a small world. Or maybe it’s just that everyone under the sun has been recommending this show to you and everyone else you know.
Before the show starts, you spend some time taking in the set: the sides of the stage are adorned with real – or at least very real-looking – pies, and for a moment it feels like you really are at a diner.
You know the plot, so part of the experience is watching it all unfold for the people around you – as the finale draws near, the auditorium is filled with sniffles and stifled sobs. That’s not to say you’re immune – it’s pretty difficult not to cry when Sara Bareilles is belting about her lost self a few metres away. On the way out, you strike up conversation with a stranger, also wiping their eyes. The London air is freezing on your face as you run for the last train home.
Joseph and The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat – London Palladium (2019)
Words by Orla McAndrew.
Several rows back sits a woman in a multi-coloured robe. Next to me my dad was talking to our seat neighbours about all the different times we’ve seen this show. In front, there is a sea of different colours. This is home. This is also one of the many times I have seen Joseph and The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. However, this time I am sitting in the plush seats of the London Palladium.
Excitement ripples through the audience. Love for this show has been passed down through generations of my family. The audience is filled with families, and I am back in my grandma’s living room watching a crackly video of the show for the first time. Then the lights fade, the stage lit up by stars. The narrator takes our hand, and the story begins.
The audience follows, the atmosphere changing through every high and low. That is until the very end. The ‘Joseph Megamix’ starts and the theatre comes alive. Even Jason Donovan getting his boot stuck in the stage doesn’t stop the party. We laugh and cheer as he dances on the spot before the megamix starts from the beginning. I left the theatre full of happiness.
Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort Of) – Leeds Playhouse (2020)
Words by Alice Hiley.
Uncertain chuckles travel through the audience as the all-female cast come on stage in aprons and marigold gloves. A karaoke version of Jane Austen? Really? But as the maids burst into a rendition of Elvis Costello’s ‘Every Day I Write the Book,’ the hesitation vanishes, replaced by non-stop laughter. Every prop the bonnet-wearing sisters wield shocks us; red solo cups, a Viennetta, and revolving disco balls to name but a few. At the opening of every song we play a guessing game – what is that tune? It can’t be – yes it is. Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain.’
Interval beers make us increasingly raucous. Shoulders bounce and our applause interrupts the script. When Lady Catherine de Bourgh introduced her “nephew’s latest composition,” we hear the first notes of Chris de Burgh’s ‘Lady in Red’ before they are swallowed up by laughter.
As well as switching characters, the actresses appear suddenly in the balconies and stalls. They make jokes about the 1995 adaptation, asking Darcy why he isn’t wet when he arrives at Pemberley. But when, from behind us, Darcy tells Elizabeth to “fuck Lady Catherine” in her deep Scottish accent, Colin Firth is only a distant memory.
A Streetcar Named Desire – Pesti Színház (2013)
Words by Regina Tóth.
The curtain goes down, absolute silence descending over the darkness of the auditorium. I stare through a hole in the curtain, willing it to move, to rise and give me more of the magic that I’ve just witnessed. The entire audience is in a haze. The kind of awe that makes you sit through the credits after a film in the cinema.
Then, almost as if we were all drawn by some invisible string, everyone shoots up out of their seats and starts clapping. My mind is still spinning, trying to wrap itself around the masterpiece I’ve just seen. But my hands knew what they had to do. I see a woman wiping a runaway tear between two claps. A man has his eyes trained on the curtain, at the spot we last saw Blanche being led away, almost as if he is expecting her to come back.
When I think of catharsis, this is the moment I think of. How it felt to be connected to every single member of the audience. The actors were probably preparing to come out for the curtain call, smiling among themselves, thinking ‘Hm, good audience tonight.’ Only, it wasn’t us – it was them.
Wicked – Apollo Theatre (2018)
Words by Gabriela Page.
Stepping into the Apollo Theatre feels like you’ve slipped on Dorothy’s ruby red slippers and been transported to the Emerald City. The green coated floors and walls are never less than intriguing. Five visits later and I still enter with glee and anticipation, but my first time there remains the most special. The time that a spellbound audience experienced Wicked in all its magic.
Sitting surrounded by a cohort of cape clad witches, dressed for a school trip, feels surreal. The misty fog flowing from the stage marks the start of the spectacle, with the bright emerald emitting from the heavens producing a glistening glow. It leaves us all with goosebumps from the anticipation. The harmonious chorus erupting from the ensemble dances around perfectly in my head, the tunes instantly staying with me.
Giggles and gasps from the children in the crowd encourage me to embrace my inner child and watch the show with wonder. The mouth-watering smell of freshly popped corn wafted into my nose, filling me with even more bliss. There’s more to Wicked than the catchy tunes. The energy, the way it captivates an audience and gravity-defying vocals being belted in its London home is spell-bounding.
Electrolyte – Pleasance Courtyard (2019)
Words by Eli London.
Walking into the theatre, it has the vibe of finally making it to your mate’s house party after a few hours pre-drinking. The actor-musicians are tuning, jamming, pointing out, and chatting to audience members they recognise as they arrive. At one point the band notice a guy in the back row and, god knows how, find out it is his birthday. They bring him down and spend five minutes jamming ‘Paul, He’s So Cool.’ Thus ensues the 90-minute spectacle.
The audience sigh, gasp and feel their heartbeats as one watching the story unfold. The energy from the stage is contagious and irrepressible. A beautiful, broken story of human nature, mental health and survival brings us together. Tenderly, the story is resolved and we are implored to look after one another, absolutely and rawly sobbing, I know I’ll need some time to recover from this one.
An immediate standing ovation follows. Liberating, heart-breaking, rapturous applause for nothing less than stardust and dreams. Audience members stand wholly transfixed and somewhat transformed. Strangers turn to one another, tear-stained faces smiling and crying. And it dawns on us that we have just watched a piece of genre-defining theatre. Bass-thumping, mesmerising, electrifying theatre.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – Palace Theatre (2018)
Words by Isabelle Casey.
The smell of wine hangs in the warm auditorium air. I carefully climb the narrow staircase to my seat and everything feels constricted but cosy. When I sit down, I am shoulder to shoulder with the people on either side of me. The conversations happening around me are bubbling with anticipation and loaded with adoring fanaticism. “Yes I’m obviously a Hufflepuff as well!” the girl to my right exclaims.
As I look out towards the stage, a sea of excited faces look with me, separated by splashes of green, maroon, gold and navy. Proud members of the audience are flouting their Hogwarts house colours. The passion I could feel from the stalls of the theatre could rival that of any football stadium.
The lights go down and the chatty audience is interrupted by a voiceover. After the lively cheers and brief applause, there is a long moment of silence. The excitement and enthusiasm, which only just started to hit me now, are being felt by every person in the room. Weall collectively feel the weight of this special moment; being able to watch the final chapter of what, for many of us, is our most beloved childhood story.
Dead Dog in a Suitcase (And Other Love Songs) – Bristol Old Vic (2014)
Words by Naomi Curston.
I’m so uncomfortable. I got in for something ridiculous, a five or ten-pound student ticket. My neck and shoulders don’t appreciate my decision after two hours standing behind a wall that I have to hoist my head above, craning my neck violently to one side to follow the action on stage.
But the atmosphere is infectious, spilling from the stage into the stalls. Laughter bubbles through the packed seats and erupts in pockets of mirth. There is applause, but also bated silence. The audience is homogenous, invisible and all-encompassing at once. And on stage the pace is breathless. From the stalls to the balcony, we are swept away into the arms of the whirling, belting, delighting performers.
Then there’s a moment that makes me forget my aching shoulders and feet completely. A woman, alone, on the stage. The smell of dry ice. A violin in her hands, frantic, beautiful, and breathtaking. And all around, glorious yellow smog, and something falling from the roof like confetti. The image stays with me long after the plot is resigned to memory. I wonder if the same is true for everyone else, surging around me as we make our way out into the daylight.
Hamilton – Victoria Palace (2019)
Words by Matilda Head.
Remember that giddy feeling when you were younger, when your parents hadn’t quite realised the time, and you were up a whole ten minutes past your bedtime? You sat quietly, hoping they wouldn’t notice, feeling like you’d practically gotten away with murder. That is exactly how my dad and I felt sat in the front row at Hamilton for only £10 thanks to the ticket lottery.
We were overjoyed with our seats, and excited to see all the action up close. But one family sitting behind us weren’t. They shouted at the Usher that they had paid through the nose for the best seats, angry to find that some parts of the stage weren’t visible from their position.
One of the women eventually asked us how much we’d paid, hoping to anger another theatregoer at the stage-obscured view. We didn’t have the heart to admit only £20. My dad tactfully answered that they were a present, so we weren’t aware of the price. As the auditorium lights went down, and we shared a laugh of disbelief, we couldn’t have been more thrilled to be sat right in front of this wonderful cast.
Introductory words by James Hanton.
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